Keynote 106 – Talking Union – 1941

As the Great Depression gave way to the war economy at the beginning of the 1940s, many formerly unemployed workers were called back to the shops.  As such, many of them found it prudent to unionize and protect their rights.  In their support, a group of left-leaning folksingers offered to their cause what they knew best: music.  In the memory of the late labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, the Almanac Singers made Talking Union with a simple message: “Don’t mourn for me—organize.”

The album cover of Talking Union;  “Dedicated to the Memory of Joe Hill.”

The Almanac Singers organized in 1940 when Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Millard Lampell came together over a mutual love for folk music and leftist politics.  Sometimes Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Sis Cunningham, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Bess Lomax Hawes, and others would join in as well.  They drew the name from one of the two books in every rural household: the almanac and the Bible—the latter to latter to help them through the next world, the former to help through this one.  Aligned with the Popular Front, their intention was to fight fascism and racism, oppose the war, and elevate the working peoples by singing “the old tunes working people have been singing for a long time,” in the spirit of old Joe Hill.  “Sing `em easy, sing `em straight, no holds barred,” they professed.  In the spring of 1941, they group made their first records for New York record shop owner Eric Bernay, a six disc album titled Songs for John Doe, opposing American involvement in the war in Europe, pressed on their own vanity label by Keynote Recordings and distributed primarily through communist bookstores.  Despite low circulation and controversy surrounding the first album, they followed up a few months later with another, Talking Union, “dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill,” this time appearing on the Keynote label.  Reissued by Folkways Records in 1955, it proved to be their most popular work.  Subsequently, the Almanac Singers recorded two non-political albums of folk music: Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads, and Sod Buster Ballads.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Alamacs reversed their stance on the war and recorded Dear Mr. President, another Keynote album.  Outside of recording, the Almanac Singers performed for workers, pioneering the mold of the modern folk music group by wearing working clothes and encouraging audiences to join in their song.  As the war ramped up in 1942, the Almanacs were targeted by U.S. intelligence who deemed their message “seditious,” and were routinely smeared by the media until their final dissolution at the end of 1942 or beginning of ’43.  The breakup did little to stifle the careers of its former members; Seeger and Hays both enjoyed long careers as folksingers, while Lampell went on to Hollywood to become a successful screenwriter.

Keynote 106—Talking Union—is a three-disc album comprised of K 301 through K 303.  It was recorded circa May of 1941 in Central Park West, New York City, and released the following July.  The Almanac Singers are Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Carol White, Sam Gary, and Josh White; Seeger plays banjo and White plays guitar.  The album is dedicated to the memory of Joe Hill.

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Victor 19171 – Wendell Hall – 1923

One of the foremost exponents of the ukulele craze in the 1920s, Wendell Hall—the Red Headed Music Maker—enjoyed a fruitful career beginning with his introduction of the wildly popular “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”, and could perhaps be viewed among the earliest artists to “cross over” from popular to hillbilly style music.

Wendell Woods Hall was born on August 23, 1896, the youngest of three sons born to minister George and church organist Laura Hall of St. George, Kansas.  His family moved to Chicago around the turn of the century, and there young Wendell got his start in music.  He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1917, but fell ill during the flu epidemic the following year and did not see combat; instead, he spent some time entertaining his fellow troops following his recovery.  Following his return home, he found work as a song plugger for the sheet music industry.  Before long, he struck out on the vaudeville circuit singing and playing the xylophone, but soon—like his contemporary Cliff Edwards—switched to the more inexpensive and portable ukulele.  On occasion, he was known to double on guitar or tiple.  He began publishing popular songs in the early 1920s, and by 1923 he’d arrived in New York to embark on a successful career as a radio and recording artist.  He made his debut on September 28, 1923, in a session for Gennett records, cutting the first of several versions of his big hit “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”.  The following month, he re-did the number for Edison and Victor, beginning a successful engagement with the latter which produced a string of popular records and lasted until 1933, interrupted by brief stints for Brunswick in 1925 and ’26 and for Columbia in 1927.  Hall’s rural-flavored novelty songs often blurred the line between popular and “hillbilly” music, and he frequently collaborated with the country guitarist, whistler, and fellow Kansan Carson J. Robison, who made his first records with Hall.  With the smash success of “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'” and other successful records behind his belt, Hall introduced and marketed a signature “Red Head” model of ukulele, manufactured by the Regal Musical Instrument Company, and instructional booklets on “Wendell Hall’s Ukulele Method”.  He remained a popular radio artist into the 1930s after the Great Depression had killed off his record career, but began to falter as the ukulele fell from favor later in the decade.  Nonetheless, he remained an active musician and music publisher, and made a brief comeback in the early 1950s.  Wendell Hall died on April 2, 1969 in Mobile, Alabama, and was buried in Manhattan, Kansas.

Victor 19171 was recorded in New York City on October 12, 1923.  It was released on the twenty-third of the following month.  It reportedly sold more than two million copies, and Hall later re-recorded both sides electrically on July 29, 1925, to keep them technologically up-to-date.  This record was transferred at 76.59 RPM, as is widely accepted for acoustical Victor records of this era.

Firstly, the Pineapple Picador sings his biggest hit composition, that old chestnut “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”.  Hall later followed up with the “Second Installment” in 1925 and “Part 3” in 1933.  The simple but humorous ditty proved enormously popular with artists in a wide range of genres.

It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’, recorded October 12, 1923 by Wendell Hall.

Actually recorded first at the session, Hall sings his “theme” song “Red Headed Music Maker” on the “B” side, interpolating “Red Hot Blues”.

Red Headed Music Maker, recorded October 12, 1923 by Wendell Hall.

Sunrise S-3269 – The Girls of the Golden West – 1933

The Girls of the Golden West, Dolly and Millie Good, pictured on an advertisement for XER, Villa Acuña, Mexico, circa 1932-’33.  Possibly previously unpublished online.

Probably the obscurest of any of Victor’s Depression-era offshoot labels, Sunrise was produced by the RCA Victor Company in conjunction with Bluebird and Electradisk for a period of nine months, from August of 1933 up to May of ’34.  Timely Tunes—Victor’s previous foray into the world of budget records—supposedly lasted only three, but they seem to turn up a whole lot more often!  No one seems to really know for certain exactly why they were made at all.  Electradisks were produced for Woolworth’s stores, so perhaps they were made for sale at some store that folded because of the Depression.  Another leading hypothesis suggests that they were made for sale at gigs by the artists appearing on the label, a known practice in the 78 era.  What is known about them is that they are exceedingly difficult to find.  There are a total of 386 issues assigned to the label according to the DAHR, including popular, jazz, blues, and hillbilly music, but not all of them have been confirmed to have any existing copies—eight of them are explicitly noted as “not issued.”

That’s not to say, however, that the appeal of the label outweighs the musical content of the record.  The Girls of the Golden West were top names in radio game of the Great Depression-era, when America got bit by the Western bug.  Sisters Mildred and Dorothy Goad, born April 11, 1913 and December 11, 1915, respectively, were born in southern Illinois and reared in East St. Louis (though they later claimed to hail from the west Texas town of Muleshoe). They took up singing while children, and when they turned professional they changed their names to Millie and Dolly Good, and a family friend proffered that they call themselves the “Girls of the Golden West”, probably after the 1905 play of the same name or any of the three motion picture adaptations of it.  While still teenagers, the Girls of the Golden West began singing on local St. Louis radio stations KIL and KMOX, before taking their act to goat gland doctor John R. Brinkley’s “border blaster” station XER in Villa Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, which was powerful enough to broadcast their music across most of the United States.  The Girls’ big break came in 1933, when they got a ritzier gig on the Prairie Farmer Station, Sears-Roebuck’s WLS, in Chicago to perform on the National Barn Dance, a predecessor to the WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.  Along with that came their first recording session for RCA Victor, in which the duo cut nine sides to be released on the company’s new Bluebird label.  They continued to record for RCA Victor through the end of 1935, after which they had a session with the American Record Corporation in 1938.  Their success on the Barn Dance brought them as guests onto Rudy Vallée’s NBC radio program, and they stayed on WLS’s roster until 1937, after which they moved to Cincinatti’s WLW to appear on the new Boone County Jamboree, where they remained until after World War II, by which time the show had become the Midwestern Hayride.  The Girls of the Golden West continued singing professionally until their retirement in 1949, after which they focused on homemaking for their families.  They recorded a final time, late in life, for the Fort Worth, Texas-based Bluebonnet Recording Studios.  Millie Good died on November 12, 1967; Dolly survived her by fifteen years, passing on August 4, 1982

Sunrise S-3269 was recorded in Suite 1143 of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, Illinois on July 28, 1933 by the Girls of the Golden West: Dolly—who plays the guitar—and Millie Good; their first session for RCA Victor.  As suggested by the label, it also appears on Bluebird B-5189, as well as Electradisk 2082, and Montgomery Ward M-4412.

On the first side—with Dolly strumming that guitar like an automobile engine—the Girls sing “Listen to the Story of Sleepy Hollow Bill”, a fun little prohibition-era outlaw ditty written by the “Melody Man” Joe Davis and published under the pseudonym “Harry Lowe”.

Listen to the Story of Sleepy Hollow Bill, recorded July 28, 1933 by the Girls of the Golden West.

On the flip, the Girls sing a classic song of the Golden West right out of John A. Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, Harry Stephens’ “Hi O, Hi O (The Night Herding Song)”, in an arrangement by one V. Adams, as Lomax’s published song included no written melody.

Hi O, Hi O (The Night Herding Song), recorded July 28, 1933 by the Girls of the Golden West.

Supertone 9208 – Bradley Kincaid (W L S Artist) – 1928/1927

One of the truly great folksingers to record in the 1920s—years before the folk revivals of the early 1940s or 1960s—was Bradley Kincaid.  Popular on radio and records, and with a successful series of songbooks, he helped to disseminate the numerous American folk songs he had collected and bring them to the listening public in a way that academics like John A. Lomax and Carl Sandburg could not approach, and he always he did so in a most respectful and dignified manner.  We have briefly discussed Kincaid once before on Old Time Blues, but that was in the early days, before the now high standard of quality had been established, and the accompanying text was rather lacking, so now let us direct our attention once again to the “Kentucky Mountain Boy”.

Bradley Kincaid, as pictured in Favorite Mountain Ballads and Old Time Songs, 1928.

William Bradley Kincaid was born on July 13, 1895, in the village of Point Leavell in Garrard County, Kentucky, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range.  One of the ten children of poor farmer William P. Kincaid, he received little formal education in his early years, but began his musical pursuits at a very young age, when his father—an amateur musician himself—traded one of their hound dogs for a guitar to give to young Bradley (or so the story goes).  When old enough to work, he got a job at a lunch counter in nearby Stanford, Kentucky, but soon left the position to fight for Uncle Sam in the German War.  On his return home, he took a job at a Cincinnati tailoring firm.  He also continued his education at Berea College, having attended their Foundation School for two years prior to his service to complete the sixth through eighth grades.  While there, he began to collect songs and became more seriously interested in folk music; he also met music teacher Irma Forman, whom he would later marry.  From Berea, Kincaid moved onward and upward to the YMCA College in Chicago in 1924, where he earned a four year degree in 1928.  As a singer in the YMCA College Quartet, he made his radio debut on Sear-Roebuck’s radio station WLS in Chicago in 1926.  Soon afterward, he began appearing on the station regularly as a cast member of the National Barn Dance program on the recommendation of the Quartet’s manager.  Soon, the fan mail began to pour in—Kincaid reportedly received 100,000 letters in every year of his time on the Barn Dance.

As a professional singer, Kincaid repudiated the “hillbilly” stereotype (or “Hilly Billy,” as he put it) that was so prevalent since country music styles first found commercial success, instead presenting himself as an educated and sophisticated folksinger—pioneering (alongside Buell Kazee and Bascom Lamar Lunsford) a similar mold to that in which folk musicians like Pete Seeger would model themselves in subsequent decades.  A year into his tenure on the National Barn Dance, Kincaid made his recording debut for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett records and their numerous client labels.  The year after that, he published his first songbook, titled Favorite Mountain Ballads and Old Time Songs, the success of which made it the first in a series of thirteen, and which purportedly made him the first of many country singing stars to do so.  Additionally, “Bradley Kincaid Houn’ Dog” guitars, manufactured by Harmony, were sold by Sears-Roebuck, the proprietors of the station that hosted the National Barn Dance.  Kincaid departed WLS and the Barn Dance in 1929 and made for WLW in Cincinnati and a Brunswick Records deal.  Subsequently, he performed on WGY, Schenectady, and WHAM, Rochester, in New York, and began recording for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label in 1933, and for Decca in ’34.  For the latter, he made a series of Irish records rather outside of his typical repertoire.  After leaving completing his Decca recordings in 1935, Kincaid did not record again for quite some time.  While appearing on WBZ in Boston alongside banjo player Marshall Jones, he nicknamed the young musician “Grandpa” for his cantankerous demeanor.  In 1944, Kincaid joined the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, holding that position for five years.  After World War Two, he recorded again for Majestic Records in 1947 and ’47, and briefly for Captiol around 1950.  Thereafter, he bought and owned WWSO in Springfield, Ohio, from 1949 until 1953, at which point he retired from performing professionally and opened a music store.  He recorded occasionally during his retirement, in 1963 and ’73, and sang for small audiences, but mostly enjoyed a quiet life.  In 1988, at the age of ninety-three, Bradley Kincaid was seriously injured in a car accident, from which he never fully recovered.  He died the following year, on September 23, 1989, in Springfield, Ohio, the town he had called home for some forty years.

Supertone 9208 was recorded around February 28, 1928, and December 19, 1927, respectively, in Chicago, Illinois.  Bradley Kincaid sings and accompanies himself on his “Houn’ Dog Guitar”.  It was also issued on Silvertone 5187 and 8218.  Split up, side “A” also appeared on Superior 2588, while side “B” appeared on Gennett 6363 and Champion 15502, and on Melotone 45008 in Canada.

Firstly, Kincaid sings a charming rendition of one of my favorite cowboy songs: “Bury Me On the Prairie”.  Kincaid’s pleasant tenor voice and straightforward delivery afforded him widespread appeal with early radio audiences.

Bury Me On the Prairie, recorded c. February 28, 1928 by Bradley Kincaid.

Nextly is the old folk song “Sweet Kitty Wells”, notably the namesake of the popular country singer of the 1950s onward, recorded at Kincaid’s very first recording session.

Sweet Kitty Wells, recorded c. December 19, 1927 by Bradley Kincaid.

Victor 21549 & V-40017 – “Buddy” Baker – 1928

There are fair number of artists who might have achieved the success of Jimmie Rodgers, but, for whatever reason, did not.  Some, like Atlanta’s Ernest Rogers, were not musicians by profession, and only recorded a few songs on the side.  Others perhaps lacked something that Rodgers had, be it talent, charisma, ambition, or maybe simply luck.  Regardless of the circumstances, in the wake of the Singing Brakeman’s monumental success were a drove of excellent-yet-underappreciated artists who left behind recorded legacies ranging from one song to dozens.  One such artist is “Buddy” Baker, a vaudevillian performer who made only two records for Victor in 1928, about whom there have previously existed nary any publicized biographical details, and about the same number of decent sounding recordings of his work.

Baker pictured in the 1930 Victor “Old Familiar Tunes” catalog.

Research reveals that “Buddy” was in fact Ernest H. Baker, and was born on May 17, 1902, in Escambia County, Alabama, the son of John and Rebecca Baker.  In his teenage years he worked in a mill, but he pursued a career in music when he came of age.  He traveled to Chicago in June of 1928 to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and cut six sides on the twenty-first and two more the following day.  Of those eight, only four were released: “Penitentiary Blues” and “Box Car Blues” on Victor 21549, and “Matrimonial Intentions” and “Alimony Blues” on Victor V-40017.  Of the four unissued sides were “I Want My Mammy”, “Nobody Knows What’s On My Mind Blues”, and “Razor Jim”.  Baker returned to the Victor studio one year later in Camden, New Jersey to wax four more, including “It’s Tough on Everybody” and “The Rambling Cowboy”, but this time, none were released.  His four surviving recordings depict an artist with a clever sense of diction and a penchant for simplistic scat singing, and a unique approach to a guitar method typical of his time.  At the time of his recording career, he was living with his family in Mobile, Alabama, and began performing on radio station WODX around the time of its inauguration in 1930.  Later, he seems to have taken up in Ohio, where he found work as a welder for Babcock and Wilcox.  Probably in 1932, he married a woman named Jessie.  Baker died from peritonitis, resulting from a perforated ulcer, in Barberton, Ohio, on May 24, 1937, and his body was shipped back home to Alabama to be buried in his family’s plot in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery.  Like Jimmie Rodgers, Buddy Baker was gone from the world at only thirty-five.

Victor 21549 and V-40017 were recorded on June 21, 1928 at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.  On both, Ernest “Buddy” Baker sings and accompanies himself on guitar.  21549 purportedly sold a total of about 9,400 copies, while sales figures for V-40017 are not available.

Baker’s “Penitentiary Blues” is one of many renditions of the old folk ballad “Little Sadie”—also known as “Bad Lee Brown”—which was later adapted into the western swing repertoire as “Cocaine Blues” (not to be confused with the unrelated Luke Jordan and Dick Justice song of the 1920s).  Preceding Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie” (which used a different melody) by more than a year, this version is likely the earliest recording of the classic folk song, though the song itself existed for at least several decades prior to first being recorded.  Other early (pre-“Cocaine”) recordings of the song include “Seven Foot Dilly” John Dilleshaw’s unissued “Bad Lee Brown” for Okeh in 1929 and Riley Puckett’s “Chain Gang Blues” for Bluebird in 1934.  Woody Guthrie must have had a copy of Baker’s record, because he recorded a nearly identical version under the title “Bad Lee Brown” in 1944.  As “Cocaine Blues”, it was introduced in 1947 by T.J. “Red” Arnall as a member of W.A. Nichol’s Western Aces on the S & G label.  It inspired contemporary covers by Roy Hogsed on both Coast and Capitol and Billy Hughes on King, and was famously revived by Johnny Cash in his 1968 Folsom Prison concert.

Penitentiary Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the reverse, Baker sings a real blues number, “Box Car Blues”, with some clever songwriting and a little Emmett Miller style yodeling added in for flavor.

Box Car Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the first side of his second (and final) record, Baker sings “Matrimonial Intentions”, showcasing more of his guitar playing.  This song was covered by Jack White in the 2017 American Epic Sessions, which saw modern artists recording covers of 1920s and ’30s songs on 78 RPM with acoustic instrumentation.  White put together a fine performance of it, and he’ll always have my respect for digging up such an obscure old title.

Matrimonial Intentions, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.

Finally, Baker concludes his brief career on records with “Alimony Blues”, bemoaning divorce with some fairly inventive guitar work.  Guess those matrimonial intentions didn’t turn out too well for old Buddy, after all.

Alimony Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.